It's hard to imagine the American diet without members of the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and white potatoes. The tobacco plant, from the same family, played an important part in U.S. history too.
Growing up in Iowa, I was familiar with the term "black nightshade" from sinister-sounding voice-overs in herbicide commercials. Millions of people have heard of the poisonous nightshade berries, thanks to this summer's animated feature Brave. But have you ever seen this wildflower in bloom? I hadn't until recently. Follow me after the jump for a few close-up views.
This is an open thread.
According to Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands by Sylvan Runkel and Alvin Bull, the nightshade (solanum nigrum) is commonly known as black nightshade, deadly nightshade, or poisonberry. It can be found across Iowa, "especially on moist to medium dry soils of open woodlands and woodland borders. It is common around the edge of gardens and house yards."
Runkel and Bull describe nightshade flowers as "white, often tinged with purple." A related nightshade species, solanum carolinense, is in the US Wildflower database of white flowers in Iowa. The nightshade flowers I've seen are more purple than white.
The flowers have a distinctive look, described by Runkel and Bull as follows:
Five curved petals join at their bases to form a tiny star. From their center protrudes a yellow "beak" formed by the stamens. Loose clusters of a few flowers droop on slender stalks which arise from the axils of the upper leaves.
As you'd expect for a plant called "poisonberry," many people consider the fruit of this plant poisonous. But this point is debatable. While the leaves are certainly poisonous, the fruit may not be harmful if the berries are fully ripe and black. Eating the berries when green or partly green is not recommended. The Foragers Harvest blog discusses the history of horticultural views on black nightshade here. The author argues that the solanum nigrum has gotten a bad rap because the undeniably poisonous European plant Atropa belladonna is also commonly called black nightshade. Many gardeners use the nightshade berries to make pies or jams. I think I will stick to enjoying the flowers rather than rolling the dice on the berries.
LATE UPDATE: I highly recommend Brian Johnston's incredible close-up and microscopic photos of bittersweet nightshade, the related species solanum dulcamara.